How to avoid or minimize duplicate names with an ensemble cast

I’ve often seen the suggestion to avoid using the same letter or starting sound for characters, like Amelia and Amber or Jonas and James. This is sound advice, if you’re working with a fairly small cast. When you’re dealing with a large ensemble cast, particularly when it continues growing with the addition of new generations, that advice is no longer practical. However, there are some ways to minimize the risk.

Realistically speaking, you can’t always give a different name to each and every single character. You always want to avoid the extremes of gut-loading your book with current Top 100 names and only using outliers. A book quickly dates if every single character has a name like McMadysynne, Aidanjadenbradencadenmaiden, Ellabella, and CowboyHunter, just as it stands out for the wrong reasons if everyone is named Polyxena, Wolfgang, Ghisolabella, and Demetrius. In real life, social circles are more likely to have a mix of trendy, classic, unusual, foreign, and invented names.

Particularly when we’re dealing with historical characters or characters from traditionally more conservative cultures, it’s not really plausible for everyone to have different names. Let’s be honest, it’s not unusual to find numerous Johns, Marys, Williams, and Sarahs in the same generation of one family tree. During its last century or so of existence, the Russian Imperial Family pretty much used the same dozen or so names over and over again (with some notable exceptions). Even the name Pyotr was only used once after Peter III, on a grand duke born in 1864.

In my Russian historicals, duplicate names include Andrey, Natalya, Aleksandr, and Sofya. The trick is using these names on characters who don’t really appear together because they’re not so closely connected, or using different nicknames. My older Sofya goes by Sonya, and Lyuba and Ivan’s next-youngest child goes by Sonyechka. For now, she’s still young enough to use that nickname. You can also use a name on a major character and on a minor character s/he’ll never share a scene with.


There’s also the trick of distinguishing characters by titles vs. first names or nicknames. I don’t care how old-fashioned this supposedly has become; I’ll always call my adult or older characters Mr., Ms., Mrs., or Miss. This way, there’s no confusion between, e.g., a grandfather and grandson who share the same name.

In my Atlantic City books, the wealthy Sewards have an unbroken custom of alternating the names Maxwell Stanley and Stanley Maxwell among firstborn sons. Father and son share their name, and the grandson starts over. So far, I’ve had Great-Great-Grandpa Max, Great-Grandpa Stanley, Grandpa Stan, Mr. Seward, Max, Fudzie, and Stan. The name Fudzie came to Max in a dream when he was eleven, and he was so attached to it, he used it as his son’s nickname. Mr. Seward threatened to cut him out of the will if Max didn’t kowtow to family tradition by naming his son Stanley Maxwell.


I have a number of Kat- names in my Russian historicals, and I similarly use different nicknames and titles. Lyuba’s mother is Mrs. Lebedeva (formerly Mrs. Zhukova), Katya, Machekha (Stepmother) Katya, Tyotya (Aunt) Katya, or Babushka (Grandma) Katya, depending upon who’s addressing her, but she’s always a Mrs. in the narrative.

Radical Katariina Kalvik-Nikonova is called Katrin in the narrative and by most people, though her husband and sister often call her Kati, and her friends’ children call her Tädi (Aunt) Kati.

Little Katerina Vishinskaya goes by Kittey, a non-Russian nickname I found justification for keeping because of its usage in Anna Karenina. The nicknames Kitty, Dolly, Betsy, and Annie are spelt phonetically, as English, like French, was a fashionable language among the upper-class at that time. I just think the spelling Kittey looks a little more believably Russified than Kitti, Kiti, or Kitty.

Kittey’s sister-in-law Katriyana goes by Kat, which I kept by justifying as her way of standing out from the crowd of 15 sisters and not wanting to be just another Katya. I found out later Katriyana isn’t such a traditional Russian name, but I innocently copied it from Felice Holman’s The Wild Children, trusting those were all real Russian names. I think it works because a number of Kat’s sisters have less-traditional/common names, like Yelikonida, Alisa, and Rozaliya, and by the time you get to your 15th child, you kind of have to think creatively.

Lyuba and Ivan’s fourth-born child (Ivan’s special pet), Yekaterina Koneva, goes by Katya. Her family also calls her ptichka, “little bird.”

When Katya Chernomyrdina appears with Katya Koneva, they’re Older Katya and Younger Katya.


Some Russian names are lucky enough to have several base nickname forms, like Anastasiya (Asya, Stasya, Nastya), Nadezhda (Dusya, Nadya), Aleksandr/a (Sasha, Shura, Sanya), Yelena (Lena, Lyolya), Lyubov (Lyuba, Busya), Dmitriy (Dima, Mitya), Georgiy (Zhora, Gosha), Pavel (Pasha, Pavlik), and Vladimir (Vova, Volodya). In English, names with multiple nicknames include William, Elizabeth, Katherine, the Jul- names, John, and the Al- names. Using child vs. adult forms of a nickname is a perfect way to distinguish characters, like Joe and Joey or Lizzie vs. Beth.

You should always try as much as possible to use different names for every character, but sometimes it’s just not feasible.

How not to write third-person omniscient

It seems as though many people who mock and dismiss third-person omniscient either don’t understand how it’s supposed to work, or genuinely have no experience with reading or writing it, and thus assume amateurishness or mistakes where there are none. And to demonstrate specific examples of how not to write third-person omniscient, I’m going to use lines from my own work, written at a much earlier stage of my writing development.

1. God-mode. “As Tiffany opened the door for the three Kevorkian children, whom she’d taken in to house temporarily till they found something better, and behind her own father’s back too, she had no idea that the middle Kevorkian child, Levon, would soon see a very beautiful girl and fall in love with her on the spot, the third Mrs. Kevorkian, and his life would never be the same again” (Max’s House #4: The Start of AS, 1999). This is typical classic, outdated God-mode, which no one wants to see in modern literature.

2. Inappropriate political, religious, social, cultural, etc. commentary. “Cinnimin quickly found a record of Just Us 6, the absolute crappiest group in the city. Their singing was so sucky you had to be insane to actually listen to it!” (Saga I of Cinnimin, September 1993) It doesn’t matter if the commentary is valid or the reader agrees with it. Pontificating on things well outside the immediate story is really inappropriate and obnoxious, and can really alienate readers who hold differently.

3. Exclamation points outside of dialogue or something like a letter or journal entry. “[Violet] kept her eyes on Robert’s greeny-brown ones as she opened her pencil case, so that explains why she handed him a tampon instead of the planned pencil! Everyone but her began laughing hysterically!” (Saga I of Cinnimin, October 1993) Yeah, this is kind of funny, but there’s no need to emphasize the humor with exclamation points.

4. Awkwardly, unnecessarily drawing attention to the fact that a story takes place in a certain year or place. “In 1941 in late December, $50 was a lot to be paying for a sailboat” (Saga I of Cinnimin, September 1993). First, I’m not sure that’s actually true, and second, we already know it’s Christmas Day 1941.

5. Making obnoxious value judgments about characters. “Tiffany and Marc stared at Max, but most of all at the fat blob who had just wandered into their midst” (Max’s House #1: New Beginnings, mix of first draft [spring of 1993] and second draft [1999]). Mrs. Seward’s morbid obesity is often used for comedic purposes, but sometimes it really goes too far.

6. Too much jumping around among characters and scenes. “By now Spencer and Camille were on birthday cake number eight. Kit and Frankie were searching for treasure and were in the actual grounded latrine, and Sheri had dropped twelve more cookies into the deep water. Ed had lost himself again” (Saga I of Cinnimin, May or June 1995). Pick one character or group of characters to focus on, don’t just hop around in the same paragraph!

7. Too distant from any one character. “Elaine, on the advice of a number of articles she’d read in women’s magazines, kept calling him silly pet names and giggling.  He had no way of knowing she was only acting so flighty to try to impress him and hold onto his interest during the uncertain early days of a relationship” (Max’s House #1: New Beginnings, mix of first draft [spring of 1993] and third draft [2011]). Deep POV isn’t necessary, but at least stick to one character’s thoughts or actions at a time!

8. Outside knowledge way outside of any character’s purview. “A rosary from Italy was on the [rock], followed by a dead man from Romania” (Saga I of Cinnimin, May or June 1995). Seriously, how would any of them know the national origins of either? Why does it even matter? It’s one thing to state something as the narrator, like when I specified Lucine’s footsteps as saddleshoe footsteps on Page 1 of Little Ragdoll, but entirely another to state such a bizarre, unnecessary detail that adds absolutely nothing to a scene. And as the all-knowing narrator, I should’ve said this refugee was merely unconscious, NOT dead!

9. Beating the reader over the head with all the subtlety of a D.W. Griffith film and essentially telling him or her how to think, feel, and react. “She feels like a Ragdoll too, kept on a shelf because the prettier dolls are more popular, unloved and alone, with the sad wistful eyes of a Ragdoll that look right through you and tear a knife through your heart, if you have one to be torn” (discontinued original first draft of Little Ragdoll, possibly early 1994). Enough said!

10. Specifically drawing attention to symbolism instead of making it more subtle and letting the reader figure it out on his or her own. “Childhood innocence was having a multiple funeral all over the world that night” (Saga I of Cinnimin, May or June 1995). That’s the least offensive or obnoxious example I could find. Seriously, just don’t do it, and don’t use symbolism just to try to make your story seem all deep. Forced, awkward, unnecessary symbolism is a writing DON’T!

11. Overstating established information. “Shampoo dripped into Donna’s eyes. She began howling with intense pain” (Saga I of Cinnimin, November 1993). When it’s already clear from the context or previously-stated or -inferred information, there’s no need to tell us all over again.

How to salvage an old idea or manuscript

While some writers laugh or cringe in embarrassment at their oldest stories, we can really learn from everything we write. There’s no rule saying you must abandon a project just because you started it when you were really young or at a very early stage of your growth as a writer. Growing up with the original generation of my Atlantic City characters was a beautiful blessing, since I know them inside and out and developed right along with them. If I’d abandoned them midway through my teens, I never would’ve been able to take these characters and their storylines to the creative heights they deserved.

Suggestions on how to transform an old project from juvenile and cringeworthy to mature and professional:

1. Have you stayed with the characters over time? I can see where and how I need to fix my oldest drafts with my Atlantic City characters, since I’ve been with them for over 20 years. When you know a character well, you can understand better why an earlier incarnation isn’t working, and how to improve it. You know, for example, that this person would never do that, but would’ve done this instead.

2. Perhaps just the basic idea is worth salvaging, and you just weren’t ready to write this story the way it needed to be written before. I honestly thought I’d never work with my 18th and 19th century characters again, but now I’m really excited about resurrecting them and their stories over 20 years after I shelved them. I figure they were meant to be if I never forgot about them during all these years. Now that I’m an adult, I can write their stories so much better than I was as a preteen and child.

3. What are the strongest points of this story? My first draft of the first book in my Max’s House series was all over the place in terms of storylines, and ended up focusing on the wrong things. During the creation of the second and third drafts, I came to focus more on the core storylines—the forced overnight adjustment to a new stepmother and three stepsisters; Max’s cousin Elaine desperately trying and failing to make friends after she moves to town; and the adventures Max, his older sister Tiffany, and Elaine have on summer vacation, after they’re sent home as punishment for mouthing off to the new stepmother. The future fourth draft will focus even more on these three key interconnected storylines, and cut out all the cluttery, pointless scenes of Max and his friends just hanging out doing nothing.

4. Are there glimmers of a previously unrecognized conflict, storyline, backstory, characterization? There were so many great odds and sods scattered about in my first Russian historical, which I later honed in on and transformed into integral parts of the plot, backstory, motivations, character development. For example, Lyuba’s original preference for Boris became a pretended preference, motivated by how her mother drilled into her the importance of marrying for money and social station. In my Atlantic City books, Cinnimin takes her title of Most Popular Girl way too seriously, and thinks next door neighbor Violet is trying to steal her crown, because she’s really insecure and vulnerable deep down. With her family’s reduced financial station, that’s the one thing she can be proud of.

5. If there isn’t any apparent reason for something, work it into the book from the start. While my Atlantic City character Kit’s dysfunctional relationship with her mother has long been written as so deliberately over the top as to be intended as dark comedy, there originally wasn’t any reason why Kit hated her mother, and had some quite scary, abnormal rage towards her. She just seemed like some angry girl with a huge chip on her shoulder, and it came across as rather disturbing and psychotic, not darkly comedic. Now there’s a substantial, understandable reason why Kit, her sister Lovella, and her brother Saul hate their mother so much. They’re also encouraged by their father, who only married his distant cousin to keep a family secret from leaking out and eventually becomes completely estranged from this increasingly mentally unbalanced woman.

Kit really isn’t a bad, unsympathetic person. Keep in mind, this is the same person who later has two kids with hemophilia and one kid with autism. If she were truly heartless and soulless, she’d never be able to be such a loving, understanding mother towards them, or any of her other kids. She just has a strong Achilles heel in the form of her mother.

6. Don’t be afraid to junk garbage or radically rewrite and restructure something! It’s like scalpeling off rotting, diseased flesh to let new flesh grow in its place, or reworking a tattoo that no longer reflects your former belief system or artistic vision.

WeWriWa—Coupled at Last

Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors, where participants share 8 sentences from a book or WIP. Since I’d like to move back to my WIP, I’m skipping ahead quite a bit with the story of how Cinnimin and Levon got together. Much of the material needs thorough editing, revising, and rewriting. The sixth Max’s House book in particular, which today’s segment comes from, is a hot mess.

It’s December 1942, and Cinni is finally single again. She was humiliated to be turned down by Todd on account of her big mouth and attitude, and spent the summer flirting with Levon, whom she secretly met twice more after last week’s scene. She even kissed him a few times, though it wasn’t reciprocated. On her birthday in August, she shocked all her friends by revealing a new boyfriend, Julian, whom no one felt was a genuine love match or cool enough for her. Finally, her friends Elaine and Kit conspired with her mother to get her to dump Julian, in the hopes that she’d do the right thing.

During lunch, Cinni gets Levon behind the bushes and, after enjoying a cigarette, point-blank tells him she’ll be his girlfriend. Levon seems a little uncertain to make a move, but then he surprises her.


“You prayed for this day since you saw me and now you won’t even—”

It was what she had secretly prayed for all those months.  It was the first time he had kissed back, and she knew she would never kiss another boy so long as she lived.  Now he was hers and she was his, and she never wanted this one perfect moment to end.  She lost track of the time and let time stand still behind the bushes.  Fate had brought her this boy from Bulgaria whose parents had survived unspeakable cruelties, and she wasn’t about to argue with Fate itself!  But she knew the moment couldn’t linger on forever.  As soon as he let go of her for a moment, she decided to see what else he might do and started undoing her buttons.


The problems with the sixth Max’s House book aren’t about bad writing so much as it’s overwritten, far too long for this type of book, focused on the wrong characters, and trying to tell two stories at once, the 1942-43 main story and a (very spoilerific) parallel story about Cinni’s granddaughter Livia and her husband Liam in 2007. Max, Elaine, and their family, the supposed stars of this series, seem more like secondary characters in much of the fourth through sixth books.

WeWriWa—Secret Meeting

Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors, where participants share 8 sentences from a book or WIP. This week’s snippet comes a little after last week’s, and is primarily a rewritten version of the original 1997/1999 scene.

Cinnimin Filliard has snuck over to see Levon Kevorkian a week after they met, while his hosts are at church. She’s just revealed to him that she’s a half-orphan, having lost her father right after her tenth birthday. He then told her about missing his own parents, who are waiting to come to America. Cinni says he’s taken away her smoking appetite by reminding her of her father, and says he has to cheer her up. He ends up putting a premature end to the meeting with his response.

This snippet has been modified somewhat to fit eight sentences.


“I love your beautiful brown eyes.” Levon leaned very close to her and gazed into her eyes. “I can see your soul in your eyes.”

Cinnimin backed away from him. “I’m not the type of girl who kisses guys she barely knows.”

“Oh, no, that wasn’t what I wanted.  Do people really do that so quickly in America these days?  I’m sorry if I scared you or made you think the wrong thing about me.”